19 November 2014

Pitting Holiness against Holiness

by The Late Frank Turk

As most of you know, I spent most of my childhood reading comic books in the peace and quiet of my room.  On one of those days, my youngest brother came in looking for some affection from his older brother who had his head in a comic book, and the lad innocently asked, "Frank: Who would win in a fight - the Hulk, or Captain America?"

Now: of course Cap would win in a fight, but that is not the point of this brief blog post.  The point is to look with some bewilderment at the question "Which is better: Justification or Sanctification?"

Some of you right now are recognizing that this post is reworked from another one which can't be found anymore on the internet, but I thought the matter was good enough to bring it back from oblivion.  Why? Because the point of theology is not to pit holinesss against holiness to see which one will win -- or whether one or the other is made less for its lack of victory.

Paul, to avoid that sort of untoward dismay, put it this way to good Timothy: "As I besought thee to abide still at Ephesus, when I went into Macedonia, that thou mightest charge some that they teach no other doctrine, Neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questions, rather than godly edifying which is in faith: so do. Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned: From which some having swerved have turned aside unto vain jangling; Desiring to be teachers of the law; understanding neither what they say, nor whereof they affirm."  In Paul's view, it was not a question of whether justification was better than sanctification: rather, it was that justification created sanctification, and those who were teaching and doing otherwise were jangling in vain.

Of course Jesus comes first; of course we are nothing but sinful wretches without him; of course good works do not save us and we have no confidence in them for that.  But for us to say that the good works are therefore not "better" than that which makes them possible seems to forget that we are justified for the sake of doing good works, or as Paul also said, "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them."

When my brother asked me if a Gamma-Ray mutant could smash the Sentinel of Liberty, he was asking me a question to show how much he knew about something I definitely loved.  He was trying to connect with me over something which should be some common ground -- and at 5 years old, he didn't realize it wasn't the smashing which we both enjoyed most of all.  There's something like that going on here.  I think those of us who are in various stages of reformed intoxication ought to be careful of it. We should be much more worried that we have idolized one kind of holiness in such a way that it has dismantled and buried another kind of holiness which God says is part of the total package.  It leads us to say things like, "my sanctification is more imaged than real," which is an explicit denial of WCF XVI.2 and XVI.3 -- not to mention the letter of James and the last half of the letter to the Galatians.

While we may affectionately ask the question which is "better" in order to establish our bona fides amongst ourselves, the truth is that somehow the thing which ought to be caused is the way we do the things God expects us to do -- and it causes the ordinary grace God has ordained in this world which shows the lost who God really is.

We certainly have an invisible and invincible holiness, but if it doesn't cause a holiness which the world sees and is conflicted over -- that is, one with a beauty it cannot deny, but also it cannot resist hating -- what kind of holiness is that?

This brings to mind another personal anecdote.  When my son was a baby, he was of course the most precious and fantastic child ever born (until his sister was born, at which time I was overcome by the number of perfect children God had given me and my wife) -- but he was also quite perplexed by vocabulary.  For example, every kind of non-vegetable was called "chicken".  And in this state of minimalistic linguistic development, he was frequently out of words for what he meant to say or what he wanted to say -- so much so that he quickly mastered one phrase with gusto: "I! CAN'T! DO! IT!"

This occurred to me recently as he went on a ministry trip with his youth pastor and some of his guys to the local juvenile detention center to share the Gospel with some of the fellows there.  As we debriefed on the way home, my dear lad was telling me of this young fellow he spoke with who said he accepted Jesus, but wasn't sure that he was ready to turn away from sin.  This young fellow confided to my son, "I guess I just have to do better."

My boy had been waiting for more than 15 years to say this to a person for a theological reason, and he was quite proud to tell me that his response to this incarcerated fellow was, "But you! can't! do it!"

Which, of course, sounds a lot like reformed theology -- or at least one kind of reformed theology.  Of course nobody over here affirms that we do anything for justification, or denies that even the regeneration necessary to receive justification is God's work.  But sometimes (as we visited above) we get it in our heads that because we cannot earn justification, justification is better than sanctification, and that somehow being holy ought to cause us to be unburdened by actually being holy.  Because that fellow in prison thought that his participation in the holiness God gives to those who are in Christ is optional, or some kind of hobby, he sounds suspiciously like someone who says something like, "I am so thankful for my right standing with God because, after all, my sanctification is more imagined than real. But my justification is more real than imagined."

Compare that to Spurgeon's recent tweet in the same vein:

Spurgeon doesn't say his sanctification is mostly imaginary: he says that sin becomes more obvious and our grief over it increases as we draw nearer to God.  Paul, the greatest of sinners (he says), doesn't for a moment doubt he is not yet perfect -- but he also doesn't see that as a ground for saying that his justification is somehow better than his sanctification (or vice versa).  It seems to me that the same fellow who wrote 1Tim 1:15 also wrote 1Cor 11:1a.  For Paul, it's not a question of which is better -- one adorns the other, and one causes or draws out the other.  They are both necessary, and one is not a Christian without both.

So as my boy and I discussed this fellow in prison who is not ready to "try harder," we didn't discuss the fantastic irony and religious metaphor he found.  We discussed the idea that while we don't do a thing to be saved by God -- the saving is all of God -- saved people have something right now to show for this salvation.  We aren't pitting an eternal decree of holiness against an immediate inclination toward holy deeds, or shouldn't be anyway.  We are glorifying God, and enjoying him for ever, starting right now.


Unknown said...

Great post Frank.
Tim Challies is doing a series on mortification of sin. which I presume is our ongoing struggle against the inner man. Although, we are living in the imputed righteousness of Christ, the Holy Spirit is encouraging ever closer intimacy with Christ which will result in a desire to be more like Him day by day. Anyone who says living the Christian life is easy or unnecessary, is getting lost in the weeds.

Robert said...

Amen. One of the amazing things about sanctification is that it is synergistic. We actually get to participate, but only in the power of the Holy Spirit (not through fake tongues or healing). We should actually be thankful for this and revel in it to a degree...not in pride for ourselves, but in gratefulness to God for working through us wretched sinners to display His glory.

Daniel said...

Two things came to mind as I read this.

The first is just a bit of clean up: you said "imaged" when you meant to say "Imagined" (c.f sixth paragraph last sentence).

The second is Colossians 2:6, "Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him" [ESV] - which describes in a nutshell "how" sanctification works - it works just like justification did - you received it through that faith that the just live by.

I am convinced that a great many genuine Christians confuse being "churched" for being sanctified - that is, they join themselves to a Christian community, and begin to conform their behavior to the standards set forth by that community - not by or through a trust in what God has done and is doing in them, but rather in their own strength, apart from the faith that is required for genuine sanctification. The end result is simply christian flavored moralism, and it is as lifeless as any other moral scheme.

I think the most neglected teaching in the church today is the doctrine of faith.

Justification is just the very first act of sanctification. It isn't better, but it is the template for all future sanctification.

FX Turk said...

Kent: Easy, unnecessary, or without any visible progress. These are the things that drive me crazy.

Robert: It's not even that we get to participate but that we want to!

Daniel: who says that's a typo? And I miss the Calvinist Gadfly.

Daniel said...

Frank: Me too. Tomorrow it will be two years to the date since the last post.

FX Turk said...

For those tempted to ask, I hold the operators and editors at Ref21 in the highest esteem, and I enjoyed blogging over there. I did not have time to stay here and blog there effectively, and frankly my approach to blogging doesn't translate well onto other sites.

Last week I voluntarily resigned from Ref21 and took this post down. I am entirely the cause for that action, and my friends over there were only willing to accept my resignation because I insisted. This post, however, needed a home and it is here.

Solameanie said...

Thanks for this, Frank. I needed the encouragement. I am repeatedly on this kind of treadmill with a beloved family member who grew up in a "holiness" church so focused on "works" that it might as well have been Pelagian. We've been round and round on it a lot, and although she now knows better in her head, whenever she runs into verses (especially in the Gospels) where particular sins are referenced, she's back on the "I can't make it to heaven" kick and we're off and running again. The mental infirmities of age haven't helped her retention any. It really does grieve me. And of course, when I hear any hint of works getting you to heaven rather than good works being a product of salvation, I get agitated. I do pray with all my heart she can finally grasp the truth, be truly set free, and be at peace before she passes.

She often blurts out with "I don't believe that "once saved, always saved" stuff," of course stemming from the total misunderstanding and distortion of what perseverance of the saints actually means. Sigh.

Please excuse my venting here, but it has been a burden. And the bad teaching she sees on much of Christian TV does not help.

Anonymous said...

It feels more like home here at TeamPyro now.

My wife and I were humbled by John 3:21 this morning in a way that really lines up beautifully with the ideas in your post. We have to run towards the Light. The Truth. Then our works will be shown as accomplished by God. Our consciences cleansed by the blood of the Messiah from our dead works so we can serve the living God. Heb9:14ish.

Seems that Scripture, read in a plain way doesn't allow for antinomianism or works based sanctification. It doesn't allow perpetual infancy or neo-pharasaism. We tend to slip (or run) to one extreme or the other because we think it is about us. When we really see it is all about Jesus then we really get it.

Jim Pemberton said...

Of course, I would reject any story that had Cap fighting the Hulk. Cap would find a way to rally the Hulk's energies for good. But that's also the message here. To paraphrase a famous preacher, There is no need to reconcile friends. Justification and sanctification are two sides of the same coin. That coin is regeneration and it's sides are friends. A regenerate mind and a fleshly mind are two sides of the same coin. That coin is a man or woman undergoing sanctification those two sides are at war. The prisoner might be regenerate but merely being honest about the strength of his fleshly desires over and against his regenerate nature, but unless he identifies with the regenerate nature over and against his fleshly desires, we have little to no evidence that he is regenerate.

Anonymous said...

"STARTING RIGHT NOW" may be one of the most important statements you make in the whole post. I don't think most western evangelical reformedish believers really get that. I know I didn't until recently. I know why I didn't get it. Why do you think most don't?

FX Turk said...

Most don't get it because most people have no idea what it means to "believe" something.

Last summer, we went on a canoe trip with the youth group, and for the sake of my wife's peace of mind I purchased 100ft of nylon paracord which would pull a max load of 400 lbs -- which is north of the combined weight of myself and my tiny teen-aged daughter. The point was that if anything happened, I would have the tool to be able to dive in after her and pull us both out.

Nothing did happen, and I still have the cord in the trunk of my car. But think about this: if something did happen, and rather than use the cord to tie myself to something immovable I instead stood by while my child was in danger -- or worse, I stood there yell at people that there's nothing they can do, either -- would it be fair to say that I had no faith in the cord since I refused to use it for what it was for?

Listen: most people have no idea what their faith is for. I would say that most pastors don't know what faith is for. But: they have the faith. If they would listen to God, and use it for what He means it to be used for, the gates of hell will not stand against them.

That's what I think, Rob.

Anonymous said...

Great example. Agreed. So sermons end up being "You suck, try harder." Believers may even have some idea of certain giftings that come with their faith, but don't know what they are for, either. Salvation has been reduced to eternal position with no understanding of what God's mission is. Make no mistake, the mission is His, we get to do it with Him. The Kingdom is at hand. Right now. Our fruit is not so we can win a ribbon at the 4H.

FX Turk said...


Robert said...

Frank, you're right...that is amazing. Reminds me of Matthew Smith singing "My Lord I Did Not Choose You", which you referred us to on this blog a while back. How grateful I am that He chose stinky, rebellious, God-hating old me...and the rest of us that are His saints.

Michael Coughlin said...

Great work.

Jack Miller said...

Hearty Amen. Nicely reasoned - of course, with the help of your younger brother! The Spurgeon quote is icing on the cake...

Jack Miller said...

But I would say that Jones wasn't really saying his sanctification was imaginary as to demean the sanctification that God works in him (us), but that compared to the standard of God's holy law his obedience or sanctification in this life is but a meager start and far from (imaginary when compared to...) the holiness that is required in the Law.

FX Turk said...

Jack --

I think that it would be great if that's what he said. Can you show me where he said that? Because his words are pretty clear:

Personally, I am so thankful for my right standing with God because, after all, my sanctification is more imagined than real. But my justification is more real than imagined.

And if you ask me which blessing I love most right now, the answer is easy: union with Christ. For, in him, I have everything, so that I don't really need to decide whether I love justification or sanctification more than another. I'm comforted, primarily, by the fact that I belong to Christ and his work for me and in me will not fail.

That passage is pretty clear. Where does he say that stuff about God's law?

If anything, the expanded quote says this: I don't have to worry about my sanctification at all because Christ's ultimate work for me is all that matters. If I love Jesus, that's enough.

I'm not the one who asked the question, nor am I the one who wants to propose an answer which hides behind an MLJ quote which is often misused to mean that we can be careless about whether what we preach is antinomian.

I think what Jones said there was flowery, and full of puppies and bunnies, and gravely mistaken -- but I am open to see how you find your interpretation of his words in his words.

Jack Miller said...

Frank, given how short Jones' post is I don't think one can say definitively what he means here and there. But in trying to give him a charitable read I take him as simply saying that his justification is fully complete and perfect in Christ. And that his sanctification by comparison is far, far (therefore the metaphor imaginary) from complete. As for the union bit I don't agree with his emphasis there. I think he may be presenting false choices between the three. But still, his comparison/contrast between justification and sanctification is consistent with the Reformed standards. And wouldn't you agree that the expression of sanctification in one's life would show itself in a direction of obedience to God's law? If so, then growing in sanctification would imply growing in obedience to the law.

WLC Q. 70. What is justification? [perfect & complete]
A. Justification is an act of God's free grace unto sinners, in which he pardoneth all their sins, accepteth and accounteth their persons righteous in his sight; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone.

Of Sanctification [ongoing & partial in this life]

1. They, who are once effectually called, and regenerated, having a new heart, and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ's death and resurrection, by his Word and Spirit dwelling in them: the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified; and they more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.

Heidelberg Q. 114.
But can those who are converted to God perfectly keep these commandments?
No: but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience...

FX Turk said...

Dear Jack --

I always find it hilarious when people quote the WCF or the Catechism on Justification to mop up their crumby reading of what it says about sanctification.

Thanks for the laugh. Have a nice weekend.